Tyson, who led DeKalb Schools twice, retiring after 33 years

Ramona Tyson is ending her stint this week as the Dekalb County Schools interim superintendent. (AJC FILE PHOTO)
Ramona Tyson is ending her stint this week as the Dekalb County Schools interim superintendent. (AJC FILE PHOTO)

In her second act, Ramona Tyson said she was operating without fear.

Within weeks of becoming the DeKalb County School District's interim superintendent in November, Tyson announced plans to submit financial audits to the state, including an audit more than 11 months late.

She also set the tone for what was expected to be a finite stint as the district's leader, something that did not happen when she was made its interim leader in 2010. Tyson's last day is Tuesday, after working in the district in various role for 33 years. Cheryl Watson-Harris becomes the district's superintendent on Wednesday.

“We’re not gonna stop there,” she told the DeKalb County Board of Education at its December board meeting. “If we stay transparent, we keep this information in front of us and in front of the public, we should follow our trail all the way through.”

Tyson’s December update was the first of many she gave, including more clear outlooks on district finances. Updates also addressed years-old capital projects funded through special taxes now projected to cost more than $100 million over budget to complete, and starting from scratch on several redistricting plans that had been in the works.

During a board retreat in January, Tyson presented a list of 67 items she hoped to tackle before a new superintendent took over.

“And there’s much, much more,” she warned.

When Tyson was chosen to lead the DeKalb County School District in 2010, it was supposed to be a short stint. Then-Superintendent Crawford Lewis requested a leave of absence amid an investigation into wrongdoing connected to construction contracts.

Tyson said this fall, after being made interim superintendent a second time, she expected in 2010 to keep the train on the tracks as that investigation played out.

Instead, she kept the job about 18 months — after Lewis was indicted on charges related to that investigation and until the district hired a new superintendent who started in September 2011.

Last year, called upon again after the school board agreed to part ways in November with former Superintendent Steve Green, she said her approach to the job was different, having announced her plan to retire at the end of the school year, having learned from her first stint and knowing the amount of time she had to work.

“That allows me to prioritize what’s important — the students and the employees — as we go to work,” she said.

Current school board member Stan Jester said Tyson was more careful about the moves she made during her first stint as acting superintendent.

“Government is typically much like a slow-moving albatross,” said Jester, who will leave the school board at the end of the year. “She’s been able to make good decision quickly, and tough ones, too. I thought that was one of her strong suits.”

Joel Edwards, of the governmental watchdog group Restore DeKalb, said while he’s been pleased with Tyson’s leadership this time, there were valid concerns when she led in 2010. Then, the district was in a state of turmoil during Tyson’s first run as superintendent, including a deficit projected around nearly $100 million, concerns with the school board and worries about mismanagement. At the time, it appeared Tyson was unwilling to address much of the district’s issues.

“We had challenges with Ramona Tyson being that she was under the supervision of Crawford Lewis at the time she came in, and there were a lot of things wrong with the school system,” he said.

Ernest Brown said he saw a more confident leader over the last eight months than he saw in 2010, when he still had three children attending the district’s schools and sat on a committee discussing which schools should close amid a national recession that saw slumping tax revenues.

“You could see it in her — ‘I got this, I know what to expect, I know where some of the bones are buried and I know some of the key issues our parents want tackled.’” he said. “Ramona 1.0 had her fair share of detractors. Ramona 2.0 seemed to change how (those detractors) thought about her.”

The pandemic upended everything, forcing teams across the district to put aside the to-do list and focus instead on how to educate more than 96,000 students remotely.

“She was exemplary at everything she did,” DeKalb County Board of Education member Joyce Morley said. “She’s worked 15-20 hours a day, held up a team, held them accountable and charged them with making sure they got things right.”

In meetings, Tyson often referenced parents and teachers who sent her emails with concerns or possible solutions, saying she did so to let them know she was listening. She also kept close watch over her two children who attended DeKalb Schools, including a son who graduated from Tucker High School this spring.

She also worked to address issues with morale, reassigning employees across the central office and in school leadership. One subtle change included renaming Human Resources, which had been called “human capital management” under Green. Many in the district voiced frustration with the name and how they felt it dehumanized employees.

The school board rewarded Tyson for her work by making her the district's permanent superintendent in April.

“We will give everything we’ve got to position (students) to be in the best place,” she said in accepting the promotion.

Edwards said he wished the district had more time under Tyson’s leadership because of how much she addressed in a short amount of time.

“I was hoping (Tyson) would stay on to finish the job she started,” he said. “We have a lot of issues going on that this new superintendent doesn’t know about. I think with Ramona Tyson … I’m hoping she can be an advocate to help monitor the situation during the new superintendent’s entry process.”